Filipineses


Could a father shape his child’s destiny?
Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

Often, intensely quiet in insulated spaces is how days unfold here, undistracted spaces that let roam vibrant memories like this week. As I write this piece midway through selecting my poems for a Poetry Reading event at the Chapters Bookstore downtown, my first ever, sponsored by Vancouver Haiku Group to which I belong, the late Serafin Albano, my father—a central figure in my writing life—looms largely.

If he did not impose his will on my choice of what I’d be, I could be languishing now in a dark even dank office somewhere in a turn-of-the century old building in Avenida where notaries get signed and sealed for a small fee if I didn’t get a teaching job, that is. He lugged me instead led by the youngest of my mother’s brothers, then in his junior year at UST’s Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, to the office of the dean. I had waffled but in a quick turn of mind, I plunged into a future of writing. But I ended up neither a journalist nor a poet not until decades after graduation and long after he had died. Instead, I sneaked into a writing career via public relations, ghost-writing for years.

From a back glance this morning in a continent way across the Pacific, I feel that I had glossed over how my father felt through those years I got stalled in what he couldn’t understand as tossing out words and images in anonymity. Picking through hints, I remember how he must have had great dreams of my name spangled on printed pages, as in his first wrapped gift on my eighth birthday, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper that he dedicated with a noble quote beyond a child’s grasp: “Education supplants intelligence but does not supply it.” Telling me a book was easier to find, he had hoped this gift would inspire me to write more—I had a year before then, sent him, where he lived and worked in Manila, a four-line poem scrawled on grade two paper, a ruse to ask for a doll.

Yes, I did write but not feeling particularly inspired only fed with words, perhaps, from books he and my mother piled on me. Early in college, I wrote a hilarious narrative on how giggly, overacting, mostly spoiled girls in a dormitory run by nuns from across UST, my first published article in Philippine Graphic magazine, in its ‘Student’s Page’ with my picture and a note on the author. It had so elated my father, he carried the issue opened on that page and showed it to everyone including waitresses. Some months later, I followed it up with an essay on fishes, which I used as a metaphor for the kinds of people we get to know in this “ocean of life”. I made him so happy he treated me out, and my friends at the dorm to dinner almost weekly. But none came long after that.

In a sudden spurt, probably stimulated by my travels in my job at the then National Media Production Center, I began weaving words into lyrical pieces for Dick Pascual’s travel page at the defunct Daily Express. My father brought each piece to Magallanes Drive, trudging his way through grime-textured air. Among the stash I dug out when clearing out stuff to immigrate to here, was a rough album he sewed on the side of those published pieces. And then again, I skidded into anonymity.

Still, we argued furiously about writing. Our last word-spars focused on my defunct Newsday lifestyle page, my first ever newspaper job. More critical and cutting than the late Teddy Berbano, then managing editor, my father devastated me by his correctness those evenings I dropped by to see him and my mother on my way to my own home—I had married by then. He had died by the time my page started shaping up and later when I wrote weekly full-page feature stories for Sunday lifestyle at Inquirer.

Once coming home from New York much later, I found the fiction writing paperback he kept sliding before me that I left unread, and cried and cried. The author, R. V. Cassill, also authored the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from which my instructor in a writing course I took at NYU’s Continuing Education program selected our readings. Leafing through the pages he dog-eared and underlined, I had realized it’s exactly what I was learning. I’ve grappled with challenges he couldn’t have imagined like writing in NY alongside native speakers of English. But each step of the way, I would find his imprint.

Could a father shape a child’s destiny, carving a path like mine that I had long wavered to follow straight on? On the podium to read my published and award-winning poems here in Vancouver, a crowd their blond, blue, hazel, gray, maybe some black even green Irish eyes on me, I’m sure my father though invisible to all would be seated in the front row.

 Published in Peregrine Notes by Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror, Manila, June 24, 2013

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“Papa,” the last time

His gaze lingers, unblinking, as if he were seeing me for the first time. I wonder if I don’t look grotesque in the closeness of an ambulance cab we have been packed into. And yet his eyes graze every spot I worked at concealing like a bug-shaped mole on my upper left cheek and a shallow dimple he couldn’t possibly find because I, too, am gazing down at him baffled, unsmiling.

His cheeks defined by sharp high bones like mine, now webbed with track lines of the years have been drained of anxiety—some perhaps his own of his younger years and mine of evenings he waited for me to come home. His lips held by a round chin like I have, a bit wide like a woman’s flaked—they always did from some kind of vitamin deficiency like mine—and slacked as if about to say something but stays mute.

The paramedic edges closer and leans towards me. He whispers, “Say something to keep his mind awake. His hearing is still sharp.” But his thoughts like mine could be drowning in the rhythmic rise and fall of the siren as the ambulance hurtles into space that for the first time do not pull us apart like they did when as a child his visits home seemed years away. 

What could I tell him now? “I love you” or words akin to it that we never did exchange? He did sign letters I received as a child, “Love,” answers to letters I scrawled that asked for dolls—he sent books instead, saying these were easier to find: the first ever on my eighth birthday, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper he dedicated with a noble quote beyond a child’s grasp: “Education supplants intelligence but does not supply it.” 

He worked in the city a whole evening away and schooled nights, too. I remember birthdays I waited for him to step off the only bus trip that got to our town—it did stop at our gate for the driver to drop off a parcel of golden delicious apples and walnuts and a greeting card every time all those years that I read only recently: “Darling Baby…” 

“Papa” was a word I could say properly accented in the last syllable the Spanish way my mother taught me. But as it was foreign to my friends who sat on their father’s lap whom they called by the native term not “Papa”, it was a mere idea for me—the absent arms that could have caught me when I fell from the stairs once and scraped my knees or whom I imagined brought home chico, a brown fruit I craved during my malarial delirium, the figure who should have pinned my ribbons in grade school when I attained first honors, and who could have led fans as I rode on the open top of a bedecked convertible being muse of our Senior Class. 

When chosen to represent our school in a regional secondary oratorical contest, he descended like Zeus into my existence—writing my piece, training me in elocution, whipping me with his serious stance as he listened to me recite every evening on our balcony to a phantom crowd. Like a sword dangling in the night sky instead of the moon, a gold medal he had aimed for me haunted the hours—my stomach churned acids that kept me in the bathroom retching every morning. His presence had turned so venomous that I refused to go to the competition if he stayed—in the battle of wills I won; he left on the eve of the contest. I got a silver medal. He wired a note and sent me my first gold wrist watch. 

By the time he could afford to bring my mother and sister over to the city and we lived as a family, I had started working in the publications office of a university. He critiqued any piece I wrote—I faced every blank page terrorized by standards he pointed out in books he shoved at the dinner table. I broke down one evening tossing out the books, raging at his indifference to the child he doesn’t know for whom he wasn’t present ever. He had cried, quivering as he is now. 

“What’s happening?“ I rasp. The paramedic whispers, “a slight convulsion, don’t worry. We have it under control. Hold his hand.” I take his left hand in mine. 

It is the first time our hands clasp—his feels so fragile, so light like butterfly wings. I am tempted to squeeze it, to drain that power he had so held me in rein but the hand fluttered like a fallen wing. 

Is that a blink of one of his eyes? “No,” the paramedic tells me, “just muscle contraction.” The gaze continues to lie on my brow. 

What could be missing that he seems to search beyond me? I realize I don’t have time to ruminate, as he would call indulging in thought. With words, alien words, English words were how he kept me as a child clasped to his without being there, without being present.    

Discombobulate, was another word he loved. When he tore up tangled phrases and sentences I wrote, he hammered the rules of clarity. Work on language that paints pictures, he later added, as he earmarked pages of books on the craft of fiction writing. By then, my writing had turned murky—I had fallen in love and my emotions kept me etherized. But love was a word that he never talked about. 

The sirens wind down to a whine. “Papa,” I hear my voice and it sounds like a child’s. He blinks again and is that an attempt to squeeze my hand? The cab doors fling open. Paramedics push out the gurney and I let go of his hand. His gaze moves to the sky. Out on the hospital lobby, a river of moving legs seems to flow ever away, bringing my father.

It has been two decades since and here I am writing the way he would have loved, present in each moment that I craft words.

Copyright © 2010 by Alegria Imperial

Published in Timeless Spirit Magazine Vol. 7, Issue #4, May 2010